Matt Barry’s latest movie — short, sweet, dark . . .
The great cinematographer Gordon Willis (above) didn’t like zooms in general and especially not in period films. He and Coppola agreed early on they they wouldn’t use zooms for The Godfather.
There is, however, one obvious zoom in the movie, in an establishing shot of the Woltz mansion just before the bedroom scene with the horse’s head. It turns out that Willis didn’t shoot it. Coppola and another cinematographer went out and stole several establishing shots of the mansion at dawn because Coppola felt he needed them and there was no money left in the budget to get them done officially.
The zoom in question pushes in on Woltz’s bedroom window, and you can see why Coppola used it, given that he didn’t have a crane or tracking equipment to get the same effect.
I hate zooms myself, in any kind of film, agreeing with Jean-Luc Godard that zooms should only be used to annoy and alienate the audience, and that zoom in The Godfather has always stuck in my craw, even knowing how and why it was created.
Ironically, it turns out that there is another zoom in the movie, one I never processed as a zoom until I read about it. It’s the famous three-minute opening shot of Bonasera telling his troubles to Don Corleone. It starts close on Bonasera’s face and opens up slowly to show Bonasera in a wider shot over the Don’s shoulder.
This was done with a mechanized computer-controlled zoom lens set to proceed so slowly that you never really resister the optical distortion inherent in a zoom. It works fine and doesn’t take you out of the period visual style crafted so meticulously by Willis, but part of me wishes I didn’t know it was a zoom.
Dramatic geniuses can get a bit eccentric towards the end of their careers. In his late romances, Shakespeare pretty much abandoned plausibility and consistency of tone — he just threw together incidents and scenes and characters and language that interested him and cobbled them together this way or that. He basically said “fuck you” to the “well-made play” and pleased himself.
The results were both magical and unsettling. The same can be said of many of John Ford’s late-career movies. They’re not tightly constructed, they veer around drunkenly between themes and dramatic arcs, with the director concentrating on the stuff that interested him, whether it had a clear structural function or not, and fecklessly tossing off the other stuff.
This is true of Donavan’s Reef (above) and Cheyenne Autumn — both of which are uneven as dramatic works but have passages of great beauty, as powerful and moving as any in Ford’s work.
It’s true also of Two Rode Together, above, a Ford film from 1961. The film starts off at a stately pace, apparently setting up a buddy adventure between the characters played by its two stars, Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark. But Ford quickly loses interest in the adventure. He pauses to let the two great actors banter with each other, in leisurely and absolutely riveting exchanges. He makes breathtakingly beautiful shots of horses and wagons moving across the landscape and neglects the visual possibilities in scenes that have dramatic weight in the story.
The adventure sort of fizzles out by the end, but by then Ford has switched his interest to the sexual and racial dynamics in the romantic subplots his leads get entangled in.
It’s like listening to a great storyteller drinking and talking by the fire, getting sloshed and losing the thread of the tale he started out to tell, but still captivating you with his voice and with the brilliance of his digressions.
The result is a perplexing film that is also great and immensely pleasurable — like Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. You know that wherever the tale is going, the journey is going to be worth it — maybe not in the ways you expected but . . . somehow.
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For me, the high point of the Academy Award ceremonies tonight was this selfie, organized in an apparently improvisatory, or mostly improvisatory moment while the telecast was in progress by host Ellen DeGeneres.
The Academy Award ceremonies are basically just a big selfie that the film industry takes of itself. They’re usually pretty dumb but always successful, because people enjoy celebrity selfies. It’s the self-importance and the fake jollity of the ceremonies that make them nauseating. But in the picture above, the various stars reveal themselves as the narcissistic kids they are at bottom — “Look at me!” they’re all saying, with a cheerfulness that’s actually endearing.
The picture even got bombed by the brother of best supporting actress winner Lupita Nyongo’o — he’s the guy on the right-hand side of the picture, obscuring our view of Cate Blanchett — authenticating the spontaneity of the moment.
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. . . center of the known universe.
The 2007 remake of 3:10 To Yuma had a very strong opening weekend, topping the box office with grosses around 14 million dollars. There were obviously a lot of people eager to see a remake of the classic Western.
Then it died, with receipts dropping off precipitously. In the end it barely made back half its production costs in rentals.
The reason for this is fairly simple. It was an o. k. film but a very bad Western. The core audience for Westerns which rushed out to see it wasn’t amused and killed the buzz and the film just wasn’t good enough to cross over to a wider audience without that core support.
[Warning -- there are spoilers ahead . . .]
In the original film, and in the Elmore Leonard short story on which it was based, a beleaguered and somewhat timid rancher becomes a hero by getting a vicious killer to a train that will take him to prison. He does this against impossible odds and in the end single-handedly. It’s a classic Western tale of shame and redemption.
The director of the remake James Mangold says the original film had a powerful impact on him as a teenager, which is why he wanted to redo it, but he felt the need to make some improvements in it “for a modern audience”. So the rancher is beleaguered but only reluctant to fight back for perfectly honorable and sensible reasons, one of which is that he lost a foot in The Civil War. No shame, and thus no need for real redemption. The rancher does want to look good in the eyes of his son, who doesn’t understand his father’s apparent timidity.
Getting the outlaw to the train goes horribly awry in the remake, and the rancher succeeds in his mission only because the outlaw turns out to have a soft side and takes pity on him. After delivering the prisoner to the train, or allowing the prisoner to deliver himself, the rancher is shot in the back and killed. His son thinks he’s a hero, but he’s really a failed hero.
Christian Bale, who plays the rancher in the new version, says he likes the message of the remake, because “It doesn’t give you false hope — do the right thing, vanquish the bad guy and everything will be good.”
This is what James Mangold thinks a modern audience wants from a Western? In storytelling terms the approach is lunatic — like making a fairytale in which the young hero accomplishes a series of heroic tasks to win the hand of the princess, only to find out at the end that she’s run off with someone else. Wanting to confound and disappoint an audience in this way is puerile posturing.
In terms of Westerns, the approach is suicidal — as one cynical, “realistic” Western after another proves as it fails to find an audience. Mangold betrayed his own youthful appreciation of 3:10 To Yuma and the Western genre he claims to love — not out of maturity or realism, but simply because the values of a traditional Western might not look hip enough. The audience told him in no uncertain terms what it thought of his “hipness”.
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This is a really bad movie. It’s got an o. k. storyline for a comic book film but it’s treated with a kind of ponderous seriousness that spoils the fun of a comic book film. It has some good design and effects work, and Michael Caine gives an appealing performance as Alfred the butler.
Unfortunately it’s staged and shot so clumsily that you rarely have a clear idea of the spaces the characters are inhabiting or what exactly is going on in them. The frenetic editing seems to have been deliberately designed to disguise or distract attention from the amateurish staging and shot making, but it doesn’t. Nothing could.
I saw Robert Wise’s The Haunting at the age of 13, when it came out, and it scared the bejesus out of me. I just watched it again on Blu-ray over 50 years later and it still creeped me out considerably.
It may be the best of the “old dark house” thrillers, because it doesn’t make the mistake of explaining the house’s malevolence rationally and it rarely shows anything shocking. It depends on creating an atmosphere of dread rooted in the psychological make-up of the characters but also literally invested in the house itself.
The old dark house genre works on its deepest level by combining the idea of the intrinsic coziness of a house — establishing it as a kind of refuge, from a storm, from problems the characters have elsewhere, which is what a house is supposed to be — with the idea of a house as a trap, a prison, which a house can become, psychologically speaking.
Wise sets up and sustains this dynamic expertly, keeping the supernatural terrors of the house always off screen, suggested by lighting, by sound effects, and by a few simple tricks, like having a massive wooden door bulge inward, as though from the effort of a monstrous unseen presence trying to enter the room.
Wise learned this approach to horror from the producer Val Lewton, who in the 1940s at RKO specialized in a kind of horror film in which atmosphere rather than shock carried the weight of the thrills and chills. Lewton gave Wise his first shot as a director on such films as this.
What Wise learned from Lewton, and his tasteful, intelligent execution of those lessons here, has kept The Haunting from dating — it remains a fine spooky entertainment for a dark and stormy night.
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Tasked with making an avant-garde movie in film school, my nephew Harry made this — great horror vibe . . .
Steven Spielbeg’s first foray into animation and 3D is surprisingly enjoyable. He has described the film as an Indiana Jones movie for kids, but given the fact that the Indiana Jones movies are already works made for kids it’s a little hard to understand what that means, except perhaps that The Adventures of Tintin has no romantic subplot, or any attractive female characters at all.
The film sticks to a simple adventure-thriller format and the 3D animation, based on motion capture, is inventive from shot to shot without an overuse of effects meant to startle. There are too many big, chaotic set pieces and the emotional core of the film — the redemption of Captain Haddock — is thin, which keep the film from being great in any sense, but it’s fun . . . certainly the best of the modern 3D movies I’ve seen.
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For my money only three series in the history of television can be called masterpieces — The Twilight Zone, Upstairs, Downstairs and Breaking Bad.
The Twilight Zone, being an anthology show, is the most uneven of the three, with many different writers and directors and actors contributing content over the run of the series. It featured several types of genres, from sci-fi to the supernatural. Even so, the quality of the work is consistently high, and quite often brilliant.
Almost all of the episodes, of whatever genre, deal with subterranean modern anxieties, centering on the themes of personal isolation and the inherent, bewildering threats of advancing technology — themes that continue to haunt contemporary life. These themes give the series a rough sort of coherence and an enduring relevance.
You can buy the whole series in a wonderful new Blu-ray edition, packed with supplements. It belongs in every civilized home.
The director André de Toth had a brilliant eye for composing shots that suggested great spatial depth, and for choreographing magical movement through those shots. That made him an excellent choice to direct House Of Wax, one of the first 3D films made by a major studio — Warner Brothers, in 1953.
He seems to have had a lot of fun making the picture — it’s one of the most entertaining of the 3D movies released in the 1950s. de Toth generally avoided gimmick 3D effects — objects hurtled towards the camera to create a shock — but when he did use them he used them effectively. One of his gimmick effect shots made me jump halfway out of my chair as I watched the film on TV in the new Blu-ray edition.
That edition is not ideal. The original 3D negative elements have been lost, so the Blu-ray is derived from dupe prints of those elements. The result is overly grainy in many sequences, which tends to undermine the 3D illusion, but not enough to destroy it.
All in all, the 3D Blu-ray is wondrous — well worth watching if you have a TV capable of showing it. Its images are captivating and often extremely creepy.